Thursday, September 4, 2014

How About Never--Is Never Good For You?

It is probably not fair that I read and loved Roz Chast’s cartoon memoir of her last years with her parents before I read Bob Mankoff’s similar reflections on his life in How About Never—Is Never Good For You?: My Life in Cartoons (Henry Holt and Co., 2014).  Both are great cartoonists; Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor at The New Yorker while Chast is one of many in the humorous illustration business at the magazine.  Both books consist of drawings and prose, making them unique in the way they tell a life story.  However, that is also where the two diverge dramatically.  Chast’s memoir was both sad and funny in equal measure and focused on a specific time in her life.  Mankoff goes for a mix of autobiography and an analysis of cartoon humor and specifically, humor at The New Yorker.  In this way, his book is less funny, although there are some classic cartoons reprinted here, many from other cartoonists that Mankoff has edited over the years as well as from Mankoff himself.  It is a primer for those who want to be cartoonists (a dying breed, according to Mankoff) or those who have always been intrigued by The New Yorker wit and humor.  In the latter group I count myself.  I’ve even used the cartoons in my classroom to have students analyze what makes them funny.  It is a subtle and nuanced form, as is the case with most great art.  In the end, I valued Chast’s work for its poignant honesty about how we grow old while appreciating Mankoff’s work for its insight into the life of The New Yorker.  It is interesting timing that both books have been released recently, and a sign that cartoons can be literature and function as hybrid nonfiction storytelling.

Because of his desire to not only illuminate his own life, but the cartooning process, Mankoff’s book has a didactical component.  He takes the reader through the process of selecting panels for the week’s issue, something done in conjunction with longtime editor David Remnick, who, according to Mankoff, is no slouch when it comes to humor and cartoon analysis.  Mankoff gives us a history of cartooning as well as a deconstruction of cartoons that have appeared in the magazine.  He explains how he started The Cartoon Bank, which has taken what he calls “leftovers” and licensed them out to other magazines, ad campaigns and miscellaneous venues resulting in a lucrative second opportunity to earn income for Mankoff and his cartoonists.  He also explains in detail how he culls the 500 cartoons he looks at each week to the 50 he takes to the editorial meeting on Wednesday afternoons.  It really is an interesting process, and the book feels like it gives more attention to cartooning and humor than to the life story of the editor.

One of the more intriguing processes he focuses on is the development of captions.  The few words that accompany each panel are often studies in humor-poetry, almost haiku-like in their brevity, but every word has weight and heft in generating laughs.  He cites examples of cartoons that did not make the cut and what was wrong with each of them, as well as captions that did not work.  Of course, worth the price of the book alone, he tells us how to win The New Yorker weekly cartoon caption contest found on the last page of each issue.  His insights will not necessarily result in a slam dunk win, but he makes clear what he is looking for when his assistant wades through the submissions.  Even noted film critic Roger Ebert tried the contest, 107 times before he finally won, so competition is fierce.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, especially since I have no talent in drawing.  I love The New Yorker and thoroughly enjoy the pithy cartoons, but drawing them is a mystery to me, or at least it was until I read this book.  It did not make me draw any better, but it did explain the creative process of a cartoonist.  If anything, Mankoff may try too hard to be funny, but he mounts what really is an academic study of humor and cartooning, so a little dose of fun goes a long way to keep things interesting.  How About Never—Is Never Good For You? is both entertaining and funny as well as being a graduate study in a disappearing art form:  the magazine cartoon.  Bob Mankoff is a good teacher, combining just the right touch of memoir, art, humor and education to open a window on the way things work in the life of a cartoonist at The New Yorker.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

For The Time Being

Annie Dillard’s books have always had a deeper, more spiritual quality.  Many are just like Buddhists’ works—short, pithy, and intense, the kinds of books where one reads a few sentences and then must stop to contemplate and internalize the insights.  Her greatest are A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), An American Childhood (Harper & Row, 2013), Teaching A Stone To Talk:  Expeditions and Encounters (Harper Perennial, 2013), The Writing Life (Harper Perennial, 2013), and the book under consideration here, For The Time Being (Vintage, 2000).

In truth, this is my second trip through this book.  The first time, not only did I find the book moving and inspirational, but the author led me to other works that are now an integral part of my library.  She opens the book with a quote from Evan S. Connell:  “The legend of the Traveler appears in every civilization, perpetually assuming new forms, afflictions, powers, and symbols.  Through every age he walks in utter solitude toward penance and redemption.”  And, “I have agreed to paint a narrative on the city walls.  I have now been at work many years, there is so much to be told.”  It is on these two cryptic notes that she begins, and because of this, I was inspired to find Connell’s work, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (Counterpoint, 2013).  Dillard’s book is a bit more structured and less abstract than Connell’s, but both are equally deserving of attention.

Annie Dillard has an elliptical quality to her poetic prose here.  There are patterns and circular narratives and symbols that she utilizes to convey the experience of human existence.  She begins with a narrative of birth defects, of all things, to illustrate the various ways we are incarnated into this world, some of us in lesser form than others, yet every life full of meaning, filled with presence.  She utilizes both a scientific and a metaphysical approach, integrating religious and secular spirituality that spans a plethora of beliefs.  She explores the work of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest-paleontologist, and describes his work ethic of being open to all things, all possibilities of existence as he uncovers layers of the past in the Mongolian desert.  She quotes him:  “The immense hazard and the immense blindness of the world…are only an illusion.”  It is this illusionary quality and ephemeral nature of life that Dillard spends a considerable portion of this book examining.

The integration of all spiritual persuasions, true believers and non-believers, makes Dillard’s work so powerful.  She tells us that Confucius wept when he realized he would die, and she quotes a snippet of dialogue from the Mahabharata:  “Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful?  That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.”  Indeed, it is this question that haunts her work:  How do we live in a world where we are destined to die?  It is the very question of humanity:  how can we know and comprehend our multi-faceted life before we cease to exist.  Human life is but a singular moment, an inconsequential second in the hours, days, and years of existence.  What does human life mean?  What does it mean to be alive?

Dillard describes the torturous turns life can take, the brutality instigated by religion and the higher power, the rabbis flayed by Romans, the bird children born in a perversion of normality.  She ponders the span between the infant and the corpse—what does it all mean?  Harkening back to her epigraph from Evan S. Connell, we realize we are but travelers here, strangers in a strange land, temporary guardians of this time and space destined to perish ourselves in the ages.  All we have, really, is the story, the fantastical moment we inhabit.  It is magical and philosophical writing that inspires thought and contemplation, much like the historical figures she describes.  How are we not enlightened by the baby and the corpse? she asks us, paraphrasing E.M. Forster.  What do we learn from our forays into science and the human soul?  Do we learn anything from the journey?  Somehow we transcend our own finality.  In fact, the concept of God “is the awareness of the infinite in each of us,” she tells us.  So, for the time being, how do we live?  And, “What use is material science as a philosophy or world view if it cannot explain our intelligence and our consciousness?” she asks.

Along the journey, Dillard includes the metaphysical and inexplicable mysteries of life.  The 1976 earthquake in Tangshan that “killed 750,000 people.  Before it quaked, many survivors reported, the earth shone with an incandescent light.”  And, “If you walk a graveyard in the heat of summer, I have read, you can sometimes hear—right through the coffins—bloated bellies pop.”  All of this goes to illustrate our desire to uncover the mystery of why we are here and what happens to us once we are gone.  With the pain, the suffering, and yes, the ecstasy, what does this life mean?  Does she ever provide answers?  In a way, because she forces the reader to think and to consider.  The answers may differ from person to person; for this time being, though, we each must consider how our light is spent, to paraphrase Milton, and find our own version of the truth.

The book is simply wonderful, deeply profound and intriguing.  It is of particular importance now in these troubled times, where human life is so little valued, and religious extremism haunts our dreams both while we are awake and asleep.  Annie Dillard is a descendent of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and this thin book offers wisdom found only in deep contemplation and the knowledge gained from knowing the finite nature of life and the world around us.

Friday, August 29, 2014

For A Friday

From The Morning
A day once dawned
And it was beautiful
A day once dawned from the ground
Then the night she fell
And the air was beautiful
The night she fell all around

So look see the days
The endless colored ways
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning

And now we rise
And we are everywhere
And now we rise from the ground
And see she flies
And she is everywhere
See she flies all around

So look see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt

From the morning
                             Nick Drake (1948-1974)

Nick Drake was a singer-songwriter from the late 60s and early 70s.  He was brilliant and transcendent as a poet balladeer, yet also deeply troubled.  His problem was depression, and neither marijuana or anti-depressants helped.  He recorded three albums in his brief career before he died at the young age of 26.  His death was ruled accidental, but also possibly suicide.  He took an overdose of Amitriptyline, one of the anti-depressants he was taking at the time.  His parents, with whom he was living, said he often kept weird hours, and would stay up all night only to go to sleep as dawn broke.  He regularly needed drugs to sleep, and one theory is that he took too many anti-depressants in an effort to find rest.  In any case, the song and lyric above haunt me, and in fact, the lines “And now we rise / and we are everywhere,” are carved on his tombstone in England.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer Reading--Anam Cara

There are books for students to read over the summer but Anam Cara:  A Book of Celtic Wisdom (Harper Perennial, 1997) by the late John O’Donohue is for teachers looking to rejuvenate themselves during those long days of heat and humidity.

O’Donohue was a former priest and philosopher from Ireland who spent his life exploring the ways of silence and contemplation inherent in Celtic philosophy.  He died much too young, at the age of 52.  His life’s work includes such seminal works of poetry and wisdom as Echoes of Memory (Harper Perennial, 2000), Beauty:  The Invisible Embrace (Harper Perennial, 2005), and Eternal Echoes:  Celtic Reflections on Yearning to Belong (Harper Perennial, 2000).  These books are not fast reads but must be absorbed slowly in both mind and spirit.

O’Donohue opens Anam Cara with a poem entitled, “Beannacht,” or blessing.  “When the canvas frays / in the curach of thought / and a stain of ocean / blackens beneath you, / may there come across the waters / a path of yellow moonlight / to bring you safely home.”  With that, he moves into beautiful, poetic and deeply moving prose about the nature of this life, how we learn to be, and ultimately, how we should face death.  He echoes many Buddhist teachings as well as both eastern and western thinking, including the concept of non-attachment.  “If we become addicted to the external,” he writes, “our interiority will haunt us.  We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still.”

Anam means soul in Gaelic, and cara is friend—the title therefore means “soul friend”—and the person who fits this description for each of us is someone “to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.”  Those who function as our anam caras “were joined in an ancient and eternal way” to us.  He uses this imagery to explore many aspects of human existence, including spirituality, growth, and finally, death.  “Death is the great wound in the universe,” he writes, “the root of all fear and negativity.”  Part of having a good death and facing this fear is to “celebrate the eternity of the soul, which death cannot touch.”  In his contemplation of the mystery of our lives, he presents the idea that “We are always on a journey from darkness into light.”  Existence has a recognizable rhythm, and one must surrender to this rhythm.  “You can only discover balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm,” he says.  “The year also is a journey with the same rhythm.”

Like the medieval philosopher Meister Eckhart whom he admires, O’Donohue spends some of his poetic intensity discussing the necessity of silence in our modern, fast-paced life.  We must practice silence with others which really means listening.  O’Donohue writes:  “One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences.  Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.”  He is referring to two entwined souls, a mate or best friend, but this advice is applicable as well to the classroom.  Many times, it is not necessary for a teacher to tell students what they need to know, or to tell them how they should behave.  We must often listen to what the student has to say, or isn’t saying, to comprehend his or her true nature.  Especially with high school or middle school students, adults want them to keep silent and follow directions.  However, their issues resonate on deeper levels that can only be accessed by listening to them, by paying attention to what they say and how they behave.  Teaching is as much about knowing a subject as it is about understanding the students, their individual challenges, and how they learn.  He quotes John Henry Newman, a Catholic cardinal recently beautified by Benedict XVI, who said “To grow is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  We, as teachers, as well as our students, are always growing, changing, morphing into the people we are in the fullness of our identity.  We must listen to each other, the voices and the silence, to understand, to become an anam cara for others.

Within O’Donohue’s writing is the river of Celtic wisdom and philosophy.  He tells us that the Celts greeted each new day as a new beginning, a chance to make a difference in the world, to appreciate the wealth of time and place and people that we encounter every day.  He brings his philosophical underpinnings into the present, writing about morning traffic jams, modern anxieties and frustrations, the restless desire for security and safety in a dangerous and duplicitous world.  He believes that due to modern life, we suffer a loss of dignity.  “We often feel that our contribution, while it is required and demanded, is merely functional and in reality hardly appreciated,” he writes.  “The soul desires expression,” and therein lies the opportunity for healing.  One soul expressing to another, the relationship of two who are anam cara for each other.

That brings us to the conclusion of the book where O’Donohue meditates on death and non-attachment.  “Mystics have always recognized that to come deeper into the divine presence within, you need to practice detachment.  When you begin to let go, it is amazing how enriched your life becomes.”  He goes on to say that our trepidations are rooted in fear, and when this fear raises its ugly head, we must ask ourselves what is it that causes our anxiety.  He calls this the liberating question because “All fear is rooted in the fear of death.”  O’Donohue believes it “takes a good while to really die.  For some people, it can be quick, yet the way the soul leaves the body is different for each individual.  For some people, it may take a couple of days before the final withdrawal  of soul is completed.”  This is why the Irish hold wakes for the deceased, and why loved ones often sit vigil over the body until the funeral.  In Celtic traditions, the dead do not live far away.  The ghosts continue to remain as spiritual reminders of the deceased, inhabiting old ruins and fields.  But in the end, no one should fear death because “When the moment of your dying comes,” O’Donohue writes, “you will be given everything that you need to make that journey in a graceful, elegant, and trusting way.”

John O’Donohue’s work makes for profound summer reading for teachers.  His words have a way of centering us and assisting us with focusing on what is important.  Great teachers live the life of the mind and spirit.  Teaching is not a job you leave when you exit campus at the end of the day.  A teacher must be in touch with the spiritual, even the metaphysical, as well as learning styles and multiple intelligences.  There are great books to read about how to teach.  But works like Anam Cara tell us not only how to be for others, but how to be for ourselves so we can feel and understand the lives of our students.  His book is Celtic wisdom, the intuitive knowledge of the centuries from a spiritual and deeply intuitive culture.  It is well worth the time spent in reading and contemplating the wisdom O’Donohue has to offer.